ATbar Domestic Terrorism and the U.S. Elections

Domestic Terrorism and the U.S. Elections

11/10/2020 | by Jenkins, Brian  

Read the full article at the RAND blog

The country is deeply divided. The political system is polarized. Bizarre conspiracy theories have entered mainstream political discourse. There seem to be messaging efforts designed to delegitimize next month's elections. The president refuses to say that he will abide by the results. One official talked on social media about buying ammunition and preparing for violence. Some pundits are warning of civil war. The nation's anxiety is palpable and understandable.

Older Americans have a slight advantage in avoiding alarm. They personally recall the turbulent late '60s and early '70s with the country at war abroad and at war with itself at home. It was a violent period that witnessed lynchings, church bombings, open defiance of the federal government, assassinations, riots, the unprecedented resignation of a president, political conventions under siege, and an openly segregationist political campaign aimed at throwing the election into the House of Representatives, where its proponents could determine the next president. It is curiously reassuring to recall that we have been here before—and come through it.

American institutions held then, but can they do so again now? What are the prospects for domestic terrorism in the context of U.S. elections?

The honest answer is that we don't know what will happen. However, we can examine the range of possibilities and make some educated guesses. This will not enable us to predict the future, but it may help us keep our cool.

A tranquil election is of course unlikely. There have been continuous nationwide protests over racism and police conduct since May. While most have been peaceful, there have been some violent confrontations, assaults on federal property, and looting. Extremists at both ends of the political spectrum have sought to provoke violence. Exhausted, apprehensive, and angry police have on occasion overreacted. It is hard to imagine that this turmoil will suddenly end on Election Day.

At the other end of the spectrum, some have warned of a new civil war, but that kind of military contest seems implausible. A more likely range of scenarios might lie between public protests with isolated acts of violence and, at the other end, widespread acts of violence and reprisals in a protracted political conflict.

Strife over measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 and racism in America might illustrate what kind of threats and violence we could see with the forthcoming elections. These include mass protests that could sometimes involve violence, counter protests, and confrontations with police; vandalism and arson; standoffs and sieges; armed intimidation; aggravated assaults; death threats against public officials; and a number of shootings, including several deadly ambushes of police.